High Art

Zehra Jumabhoy at the fourth Indian Art Fair

Left: Collector Lekha Poddar, founder of the Devi Art Foundation (left). (Except where noted, all photos: Aqdas Tatli) Right: Neha Kirpal, founding director of the India Art Fair (seated), and artists Navin Thomas and Tallur L.N. (Photo courtesy Škoda)

I BEGAN my preparatory fieldwork for Delhi’s India Art Fair early this year, sipping watermelon margaritas at Maker Maxity, the massive new I-banker hub in Mumbai. The fair was due to open a few days later, on January 25, but the sprawling “collateral events” had already begun: In this case, it was the launch of Maxity’s “public art project,” sponsored by property magnate Manish Maker. The swanky private preview gathered the great and good of the Mumbai art world: Artists Amar Kanwar (whose melancholic, meditative films were on view) and Reena Saini Kallat were there, as well as the elaborately attired Tasneem Mehta, honorary director of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. But the centerpiece was artist Sudarshan Shetty’s sculpture of a red double-decker bus, kitted out with a pair of gargantuan silver wings. Were we going to be whisked off to more exalted realms?

Like Shetty’s fantastical vehicle, the fourth edition of the fair held out the promise of new heights—its name change notwithstanding. (Until recently it went by the loftier title of India Art Summit.) This time, fair director Neha Kirpal’s brainchild occupied forty-seven acres of the NSIC exhibition grounds in Delhi’s Okhla neighborhood, a marked upgrade from the smaller Pragati Maidan it colonized last year. India Art Fair Four also flaunted new stakeholders: Sunil Gautam, founder of the PR Agency Hanmer & Partners, sold his share to Will Ramsay and Sandy Angus (cofounders of Art HK). As if to celebrate the shift, specially constructed tents emerged from the Delhi dust like proud pyramids.

Left: Vivan Sundaram's “Gagawaka models” with curator Shanay Jhaveri. Right: Curators Suman Gopinath and Grant Watson with artist Vivan Sundaram.

Plunging into the crush of the opening night VIP party, I found the company as animated as the structure’s facade. I fortified myself with champagne and quickly clocked Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon and Jessica Morgan, and Greg Hilty from London’s Lisson Gallery. Fetchingly clad, Divia Patel from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum looked about in unfeigned amazement. (It was, she confessed, her first time at the fair.) Performa’s black-clad and svelte RoseLee Goldberg glided by, while not-so-Young British Artist Marc Quinn atoned for his drab apparel with a decorative contribution to White Cube’s booth: an acid-hued painting depicting giant flowers. Local talent milled about: The Delhi-based veteran artist Vivan Sundaram was accompanied by a bevy of beauties dressed in his very own “Gagawaka creations.” Following hot on Sundaram’s heels was the fairy godmother of Indian art history, Geeta Kapur herself. Pushed around in a wheelchair, she regally waved her walking sticks at worthy subjects.

Over the next few days, collectors—like the mother-son duo Lekha and Anupam Poddar as well as the much-solicited Kiran Nadar (founder of Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)—mingled with international “personalities.” There was Suzanne Cotter, curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project; Kwok Kian Chow, director of Singapore’s National Art Gallery; and Grant Watson from London’s offbeat Iniva. Teams from the Guggenheim, the New Museum, and Art Basel were on the prowl too. The airline industry must have done well during IAF week anyway—no matter Vijay Mallya’s grumbles.

Admittedly, the India Art Fair’s newfound internationalism—50 percent of the galleries were non-Indian this time—looked more impressive on paper than in practice. There were all the usual heavyweights: Subodh Gupta’s giant silver thali half-full of bits of marble molded to resemble grains of rice and Bharti Kher’s resin-coated saris vied for attention with the inevitable Anish Kapoor (a disc of dark green metal) and El Anatsui’s large offering (bottle caps strung together to mimic soft swaths of gold brocade). Still, nestling in the crowds were unexpected delights: Sophie Calle’s “Exquisite Pain” series of photographs and text, brought by the Berlin gallery Arndt, spoke of love and loss at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. Distressing in another way was a Marina Abramović video at Lisson in which she bit into an onion, skin and all, while listing the reasons for her world-weariness. Perhaps she’d have felt better knowing that two of her works sold double-quick.

Left: Dealers Ursula Krinzinger (left) and Thomas Krinzinger (right). Right: Dealer Tushar Jiwarajka of Volte Gallery.

Tushar Jiwarajka, of Mumbai’s Volte Gallery, wasted no time with whining: “We sold works to major public and private collections from India and abroad,” he beamed. Of course, not everyone had such luck. Many Western galleries moaned that Indian buyers were reluctant to purchase from them; reciprocally, Indian galleries bemoaned the lack of new collectors. “Just because there are all these international institutions around does not mean they are buying,” lamented one Indian dealer. “The market is terrible, and anyone who says otherwise is lying,” corroborated another. New York dealer Thomas Erben was more measured: “The mood was definitely subdued,” he said, suggesting that the lack of buyers might be due to the dates, which included a holiday weekend and coincided with the World Economic Forum in Davos. Anupa Mehta of the Loft, with her minimal white-centered booth of floaty paperworks, offered another explanation: “There were too many satellite events; too many distractions!”

The most exciting “distraction” was the Škoda Prize Show. The award, modeled on Britain’s Turner Prize, boasts the critic Girish Shahane as its adviser and is now in its second year. Its short list included superstar Jitish Kallat, the well-regarded Tallur L.N., and young Navin Thomas. To general glee, Thomas was hailed as the winner, with Marc Quinn giving away the trophy to the (temporarily) speechless victor. “The dark horse wins!” artist Sharmila Samant yelled jubilantly. No doubt, the Animal Welfare Board—who’d been complaining to the Hindustan Times about Thomas’s “cruel” installation that morning—would have been less chuffed. To their dismay, Thomas’s sculpture contained “hand-raised” pigeons that were confined to a room with a metal tree and transistor radios emitting white noise. Thomas’s apparent point was to showcase how animals adapt to urban spaces.

Left: Curator Susan Hapgood and dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte Gallery. Right: Sapna and Subhrajit Kar, cofounders of the online art fair India Art Collective.

Yet if his well-fed birds seemed content with their faux foliage, there were those who weren’t satisfied with their surroundings: “Art fairs are the worst way to see art; we need to support alternative ventures too,” Geeta Kapur insisted at the press conference for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The biennial is being codirected by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. They vow to launch it on 12/12/12. Amen to that. But until the directors deliver on their pledge, the India Art Fair is the most glittering thing on the Indian art world’s horizon. “This year was a turning point in many ways for the fair, with collectors coming from all over the country and the world,” Kirpal attested.

Listening to Kirpal, I felt a wave of nostalgia for the cozy Summits of old (just last year!), where everyone knew everyone else. And it was tempting to be cynical about how “international” interest in Indian art is invariably preoccupied with commerce. Yet perhaps there’s something to be said for globalization too. At the Devi Art Foundation—the Poddars’s private museum that always hosts the fair’s closing night party—the fuss and bother of the week gave way to a sense of wonder. The exhibition of contemporary Iranian art there, curated by Amirali Ghasemi, was the best show in the city. “The Elephant In the Dark”—a term gleaned from a line by the Sufi poet Rumi—was a sanctioned peek into a sinister reality, and the last section, filled with the haunting sounds of an Iranian lullaby, adroitly handled the political violence that besets Iran. If India’s entry into the global art world means we’ll have more such culturally insightful shows, we stand to gain more than we’ve lost.

Left: Dealer Greg Hilty of Lisson Gallery (right). Right: Artists Bose Krinamachari and Riyas Komu, codirectors of the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Left: Dealer Sree Goswami of Project 88. Right: Dealer Mort Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal Gallery with artist Rashid Rana.

Left: Sunitha Kumar Emmart of GallerySKE with Navin Thomas’s music box. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg.

Left: Art advisor Raneem Zaki Farsi with artist Jitish Kallat. Right: Dealer Ranjana Steinruecke of Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke.

Left: Dealer Abhay Maskara with artist Shine Shivan. Right: Dealer Tara Lal of Chatterjee & Lal Gallery.

Left: Dealer Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road. Right: Sunitha Kumar Emmart of SKE Gallery, Bangalore, writer Aveek Sen, and Abhay Sardesai, editor of ART India.